Eric L. Davis, Politically Speaking: Congressional battle taking shape

Next year’s congressional elections will be among the most consequential midterms in recent years. Both Democrats and Republicans want to nationalize the election, and make local House and Senate races into a referendum on the performance of President Trump and the Republican Congress.

The likelihood of the majority party changing is very different in the two houses. In the Senate, 23 of the 33 seats up for election are now held by Democrats. This includes seats in generally Republican states such as Indiana, Montana and North Dakota, as well as in competitive states such as Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. Only one Republican-held seat, in Nevada, is seen as competitive.

Democrats and their independent affiliates will do well to come out of the election with no fewer than the 48 Senate seats they currently hold.

Democrats need to gain 24 seats to form the majority in the House after November 2018. Twenty-three districts now represented by Republican House members voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. Another 17 Republican-held districts saw Donald Trump win less than 50 percent of the vote last year. These districts, along with the normal loss of House seats by the President’s party in midterm elections, make a majority-Democratic House in 2019 a realistic possibility.

If Democrats were to organize the House after the election, they would control all committees and the House floor agenda. They could use committee majorities to conduct aggressive oversight of the Trump Administration, including the use of subpoena power to compel testimony and the production of documents. They would also be a in a position to commence impeachment proceedings against Trump if warranted.

One matter on which Democrats are now divided is whether to focus their efforts on 50 or so House seats, or to conduct a nationwide campaign targeting many more districts. Divisions on this issue may have affected the outcome in the Montana special election last week.

Grass-roots progressive organizations, such as Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution group, intensively supported Democratic candidate Rob Quist. Establishment Democratic organizations such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) provided Quist with only nominal support. They are focusing their efforts on what they see as a much more winnable special election in the Atlanta suburbs later in June.

The DCCC and other Washington-based organizations might well concentrate next year on what they see as a group of winnable districts — about twice as many districts as would be needed to win a House majority. Grass-roots progressive organizations would support a much larger number of Democratic candidates.

If this happens, the candidates in the 50 or so competitive districts will likely receive much more financial support, including substantial donations from PACs and SuperPACs. Other Democratic candidates will depend more on small contributions raised online by grass-roots groups.

In all instances, Democratic candidates will be hard-pressed to keep up with Republican fund-raising. Republican candidates will benefit from especially large donations from corporate and professional interests that support Republican tax cut and deregulation policies.

Presidential popularity has traditionally been an important factor affecting the outcome of congressional midterms. Since Inauguration Day, Trump’s approval rating has consistently been below 50 percent.

While most of the 40 percent or so of Americans who approve of Trump’s performance hold that opinion very strongly, many of these voters are concentrated in solidly Republican House districts that are unlikely to be competitive next year. To hold on to the House, Republican congressional candidates will need to get support from at least some voters who do not approve of Trump.

Republicans will also do all they can to suppress the vote among those who disapprove of Trump, by making it hard to register and by limiting early voting.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.


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